President-elect Joe Biden has promised that he will “end the Trump Administration’s draconian [immigration] policies … and restore America’s moral leadership.”
It’s hard not to be skeptical about that, given Biden’s propensity for masking tepid platforms in ambitious language. And Biden’s promise ignores that the United States’s immigration system was a human rights disaster before Trump (Biden’s former boss holds the title of “deporter-in-chief”), and that the damage that nativist zealots have since done to that system is not easily reversible.
But if Biden is actually serious about injecting some morality into the U.S. immigration system, his administration must be bold. Like the xenophobia czars of the Trump White House, the incoming administration must be willing to buck policy-making norms—something Biden’s lane of Democrats are often reticent to do—which means taking the fight for immigration justice to new venues.
Given the unlikeliness that Democrats in Congress will be able to substantively change immigration law anytime soon, much advocacy energy has been focused on what Biden can do to tighten the leash of the U.S. deportation machine’s attack dog agencies, like ICE, under the Department of Homeland Security. But to get at the heart of some of the cruelest policies and practices, the administration will also have to weaponize the often overlooked but immensely consequential legal arm of the immigration system, via the Department of Justice and its head, Biden’s yet to be named attorney general.
With an activist attorney general, the Biden administration could sidestep congressional hurdles and rewire the immigration system in fundamental ways. Rather than simply holding ICE back from enforcing mass detention and deportation, the Justice Department could give tens of thousands of immigrants a chance to escape its clutches.